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Category: Strategy

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Jun 26, 2019


Law Firm Succession Strategy When Candidate Associate Attorney Says No to Your Proposal

Question: 

I am the owner of a law firm in Mesa, Arizona. I started the firm twenty-five years ago. Our focus is exclusively on estate planning and we serve clients throughout the Phoenix metropolitan area. There are three other associate attorneys working in the firm as well as staff. One of the associates has been with the firm for ten years and the other two are right out of law school – one was hired this year and the other one year ago. I am sixty-three years old and I would like to retire and exit the practice within the next three years – the sooner the better as I have other interests that I would like to pursue.

For several years it has been my goal to transition my practice to my senior associate and he and I have discussed this vaguely over the years – just the idea in general – no specifics. Recently, I made a proposal to him where he would gradually buy my shares over the next three years and have all my shares paid for by the time of my retirement which would be three years from now. To my surprise he refused. Where do I go from here?

Response: 

Getting a “no” is not unusual. We are experiencing this quite frequently in our succession planning projects. Often this results in the firm exploring external succession strategies and having to merge with another firm or selling the practice. First of there is not the hunger for “equity” that there was thirty years ago. This is due in part to the fact that in many firms – large and small – there is now a non-equity partner status with the recognition of partner status, additional compensation and perks, and none of the risks of equity partnership. In addition, work life balance is important to many attorneys and many are unwilling to give up work life balance in exchange for the stress of equity partnership. Finally, many candidate associate attorneys either don’t have the capital/financial resources often required to obtain equity or don’t see the payback or return on their investment should they buy-in.

Here are a few thoughts concerning your situation:

  1. Reevaluate your proposal. Is the price you are asking for your shares reasonable and affordable for the candidate based upon the actual profits (your earnings) generated by the firm? If the price is not reasonable or affordable for the candidate consider providing an alternative proposal.
  2. Even if the price is reasonable and affordable, three years may not be a long enough period. You may have to settle with getting some of the value say three to five years after your retirement. Consider this as an alternative.
  3. Your associate may be reluctant not because of the terms but because he does not really want to own a law firm – he just wants a job as a lawyer. If this is the case it does not make any difference what you propose and you need to examine other options such as bringing in a lateral that is willing to take over your practice or a merger or sale of the practice.

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John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC

May 07, 2019


Law Firm Succession Planning in a Fourteen Attorney Firm – Internal vs External Strategy

Question:

I am the managing partner in a fourteen attorney firm in Austin, Texas. Our firm represents hospitals in their defense against malpractice claims. We have four equity partners, six non-equity partners, and four associates. The four equity partners started the firm thirty years ago and we are all in our late fifties and early sixties. We plan on working another eight years and then plan on retiring approximately at the same time. We may remain on as Of Counsel. Of our six non-equity partners, five are in their early and late sixties. We are considering making one an equity partner in the near future. Our associates are all recent law graduates that we hired right out of law school and all have been with the firm less than five years. What is our best succession strategy – merger or growing our own future partners?

Response: 

Most firms, and I agree with this, prefer an internal strategy and would like to grow their own and leave a legacy of the firm. Mergers can be fraught with problems and are often not successful. Depending on the size of the other firm, many firms are not willing to provide any compensation for practice goodwill beyond the compensation and benefit package. It sounds like you have had your independence for thirty years and you may not be comfortable giving that up and working in a merged firm environment for eight years.

However, a merger is often easier. You have a challenge on your hands since you have to replace four partners and only have one possible future equity-partner candidate on deck. In part it will depend upon the age and the experience of the one non-equity partner. Is he even willing to step-up to equity, invest in the firm, and buyout your interests? My experience these days is that a lot of non-equity partners are saying “no” to equity. With your type of clients you probably need at least three or four seasoned partners in order to convey to the clients that you have adequate “bench strength”. When the four of you retire unless you can build up the bench strength the firm will be also lacking leadership and firm management experience.

You have five years in which to build up your talent pool. You will have to first see if you can recruit and bring in some lateral talent – attorneys in their forties with fifteen to twenty years experience. Look for attorneys that want to be more than just worker-bees – that want to have future equity interest in a firm. If this strategy works out, begin bringing them into equity as soon as possible to ensure that the commitment is there by having them buy shares upon admission. Begin client and management transition no later than three years prior to your retirements.

If you are not able to bulk-up your talent pool or you have no one interested in equity ownership, then you will have to consider a merger strategy. I would begin a merger search three years prior to your retirements.

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John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC

Feb 20, 2019


Law Firm Growth – Is Growth Always the Best Strategy

Question: 

I am the sole owner of a five-attorney litigation firm in Mesa, Arizona. I started the firm twelve years ago after leaving a large firm where I worked for a very large national firm in Phoenix. I was an income partner in that firm. For a few years I operated as  a solo with a legal assistant. Then I began adding associates and staff. Now we have me and four associates, a office manager/bookkeeper, two paralegals, and two legal assistants. Our annual gross fee revenues are around 1.2 million, the overhead is high, my net income is not all that much more than what I was making as a solo. My associates aren’t willing to put in the time to generate the billable hours that we need and then there is the time and stress of managing all of this. Is growth a good thing?

Response: 

Not always – depends upon your goals and your area of practice. If your area of practice is a low billable rate ($150-$175 per hour) practice area such as insurance defense or municipal law, it will be difficult to reach a desirable personal income level without associate attorney leverage. However, if you are in a practice area with bill rates of $300 to $500 per hour you may be able to attain the personal income levels that you desire without associate leverage and growth. It all depends upon your personal income goals, your ability to support and handle the work that you have, and your ability and desire to manage a group of attorneys.

Growth requires that you manage others as well as yourself. More office space is required – more overhead to support the additional people. Growth puts a strain on cash flow and requires additional working capital. A new set of skill sets (people skills) is now required.

Some Lawyers Never Develop the Skills Needed or Desire to Go to This Level and Firm Growth is Restricted as a Result.

I refer to this phase as Sole Owner Phase. I have client law firms in this phase than consist of an attorney owner, a handful of employed associates, paralegals, and staff. These firms may have 3 to 4 people or ten or more. I have sole owner law firms with over 100 employed attorneys and staff. I work with other sole owners that choose to remain solo (without other attorneys) and are quite successful. It all comes down to what you are comfortable with.

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John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC

 

 

Jan 23, 2019


Law Practice Exit Strategy – Internal or External

Question: 

I am the owner of a criminal defense practice in Bloomington, Illinois. I have been practicing for forty years and I have just turned sixty-five. I have one associate that has been with me for two years and two staff members. I would like to retire by the end of this year and I would like to receive some value from my practice. Would I be better off to sell my practice to my associate or another firm?

Response: 

One year is a very short timeline for putting together an effective exit strategy. Criminal defense practices are often based on the reputation of the owner-practitioner and more difficult to sell to other firms than other practices. I believe the best option for most firms is an internal exit strategy via sale of the practice to other attorneys working in the firm (non-equity partners or associates). However, this assumes that the firm has attorneys that have the skills and competencies to carry on the practice and have an interest in owning a law firm. Often this is not the case. The other problem is that most associates don’t have any money so any sale usually has to be paid out of future revenues after the owner retires. Other options include selling the practice to another law firm, merger with another firm, or winding down the firm and joining another firm as an Of Counsel for a few years and then retiring from that firm with a payout in the form of a percent of revenue from your clients for a few years.

Your associate has only been with the firm for two years. If he or she is straight out of law school you will have to assess whether he or she has the skills, competencies, and desire to take over your firm? If he or she does, this might be your best option. If not, you will need to explore an external exit option – sale, merger, or Of Counsel arrangement. I have had clients that have had successful exits from their practices with each of these arrangements.

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John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC

Dec 06, 2018


Hiring an Associate Attorney as a Solo’s Exit Strategy

Question: 

I am a solo practitioner in Central Illinois. I have been in practice for 30+ years and I just turned sixty. I have two staff members and no other attorneys in the firm other than myself. I plan on working another five years and then I would like to gradually exit from my practice and then retire. I want to have a home for my clients and employees and I would prefer to be able to sell my interest to an associate attorney working for the firm. I think we have the work to justify hiring an associate and this is the route I would like to go. I have never had an associate so I am not sure what I should look for. Your thoughts would be most appreciated.

Response: 

I believe that an internal succession/exit strategy is your best option if you can find the right associate. Unlike years ago, there are many associates today that just want a job and work/life balance is more important than taking on an ownership role in a firm. They simply are not interested in the work, stress, and risk that it takes to own and manage a law firm. So it is important when searching for an associate that you really vet out this interest to insure that you are hiring someone that will be willing to buy out your interest when you retire and take over your practice.

I have worked with a lot of firms that think they have an exit plan via an associate only to be told no when approached with a proposal to acquire their practice.  When you interview candidates look into their history and their family history to see if you can find a hint of entrepreneurship. You may want to hire a more seasoned attorney that has a small practice that could expand his or her practice by becoming part of your practice. Hire someone that has an interest in the business of law as well as practicing law.

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John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC

Oct 10, 2018


Law Firm Merger as an Exit Strategy for Sole Owners

Question: 

I am the owner of a small general practice firm in Novato, California. I have three associates working in the firm, three legal assistants, and one office manager/bookkeeper. I started my practice thirty-five years ago right out of law school. I am sixty years old and wanting to retire within the next five years. None of my associates have the ability or the desire to take over the firm. I believe that my best option is to sell my practice to another practitioner or join another firm through merger or other arrangement. I would appreciate your ideas regarding merging with another firm and how I would be compensated and receive payment for the goodwill value of my firm.

Response: 

Merger or an of counsel arrangement are approaches that many sole owner firms are taking when there is no one on board that is capable or willing to buyout your interest. Often merger or of counsel arrangements look very similar in how they are structured. Typically, the owner joining another firm:

Employees that the new firm has accepted would join the new firm and receive compensation and benefits spelled out in the merger or Of Counsel agreement.

How the arrangement will be structured and how compensation/buy-out will be structured will depend upon the size of the other firm. I assume that you will be looking at a firm similar to your size or a little larger (1-20 attorneys). If this is the case and if the arrangement is structured as a merger you would more than likely be classified as a non-equity partner and not an equity partner. While the other firm could pay you in the same manner that other non-equity partners are paid, often a special compensation arrangement is developed where you are paid a percentage of your collections and if you are lucky a referral fee arrangement for your client origination’s for two or three years after your retirement – typically twenty percent. In many cases if will be difficult to get a goodwill value payment and impossible in mergers or Of Counsel arrangements with large firms.

Another option would be an outright sale to another sole owner or small firm for a fixed price for the goodwill value of your firm and any assets the firm desires to acquire. More than likely this would be with an initial down payment and payments over a three to five-year period. Typically, practice sale agreements have provisions whereby the purchase price can be reduced if revenues fall below a certain level.

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John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC

May 08, 2018


Of Counsel Arrangement as a Law Firm Exit Strategy

Question: 

I am the owner of a solo real estate practice in Merced, California. I have two staff members that work for me. I am the only attorney in the firm. I am sixty years old. While I am concerned about the long term exit from the practice I am also concerned about office coverage in case something would happen to me in the short term. I appreciate any recommendations that you may have.

Response: 

Forming an Of Counsel relationship with another firm is an option that many solos are taking. Sometimes it is a final arrangement where a solo winds down his or her practice and then joins another firm as an employee or independent contractor. He or she is paid a percentage of collected revenue under a compensation agreement with different percentages depending upon whether the practitioner brings in the business, services work that he or she brings in, or services work that the firm refers to the practitioner. In other situations, an Of Counsel relationship is used as a practice continuation mechanism that provides the solo with additional resources and support if needed. An Of Counsel relationship can also be used to “pilot test” a relationship prior to merging with another firm. We have had several law firm clients that has taken a phased approach to merger with Phase I being an Of Counsel “pilot test” exploratory arrangement and Phase II being the actual merger.

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John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC

 

Dec 27, 2017


Associate Attorneys as a Succession/Exit Strategy

Question: 

Our firm is a Tucson, Arizona business litigation firm. We have four founding partners and four associates. The partners are in their late fifties and early sixties. All four of us are contemplating retirement in the next eight to ten years. We are assuming that our associates will be willing to step up and buy-out our interests. We have not had any discussions with our associates concerning this. Your thoughts will be appreciated.

Response: 

Do you have the right associates on the bus for the long term? In other words, has the firm hired associates that want to be business owners and own a law firm? Many owners and senior partners in law firms are approaching retirement age and are beginning to think about succession strategies. As they examine their associate lawyer ranks, some partners are often surprised to learn that there may be few takers. While their associates may be great lawyers, they may not bring in business or even be able to retain clients that the firm has. They may not be interested in ownership or partnership. Such firms have hired a bunch of folks that just wanted jobs and have no interest in owning a law firm. While this hiring approach may have satisfied the firm’s short-term needs – it may fall short in the long term.

While partnership/ownership is still important to many – do not assume that all your associates will even want to be equity partners – especially if it means a hefty capital contribution and signing personal guarantees for a large amount of firm debt.

I suggest that you talk with your people – individually and as a group – and see where they really stand. Help them to begin developing client development and business skills. Depending on you and the other partner’s retirement timelines – you may have to consider other options such as laterals or merging with another firm.

A key suggestion is to look for entrepreneurial associates when hiring future associates. The desire for ownership of a business is often in a person’s blood. Do not start the interview with a discussion from law school until the present. Dig deeper into hobbies, family, etc. that will provide clues as to whether you may be hiring someone that just wants a law job or someone that eventually wants to own or be a partner in a law firm.

The sooner you begin the better off you will be especially if several partners are close to the same age and looking to retire about the same time. Not only does it take years for associates to be groomed for management and client transition it can also take years for them to be able to pay for their ownership interest.

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John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC

 

Oct 31, 2017


Law Firm Strategy – What is a Strategy for a Law Firm?

Question: 

We are an Oklahoma City law firm of seventeen attorneys – ten of which are partners. Our firm does a little of everything. We have a three-member management committee of which I am a member. The firm was founded by four of the present partners twenty-two years ago. For many years the firms was very successful, however for the last five years financially we have been hard pressed and we have been stagnant. We have been discussing what to do about the situation. One of our partners suggested marketing and another suggested that we needed a new strategy. We do not have a marketing plan and I didn’t know we even had a strategy. I would appreciate your thoughts.

Response: 

A strategy is the firm’s decision on what services to sell, to whom to sell these services, and on what basis to sell these services. In other words a law firm must determine what legal services to be provided, to which clients and in what geographic locations, and how these services will be differentiated from those provided by other law firms. Law firms can choose a broad or narrow range of clients. Law firms can compete either on the basis of price, quality of service, or expertise. Firms compete on price by charging lower fees than their competitors. If the firm’s clients perceive that the firm has unique advantages over its competitors in the way services are provided, then the firm is competing on the basis of quality of service. If the firm offers its clients a superior knowledge base, it is competing on expertise.

Your strategy or lack of a strategy has been broad. A narrower strategy is appropriate in today’s competitive legal marketplace.

Here are a few suggestions for narrowing your strategy:

  1. Commit to one mode of competition – price, quality of service, or expertise.
  2. Select a strategy compatible with industry conditions.
  3. Select a unique niche.
  4. Diversity practice area risks.
  5. Select a strategy compatible with the firm’s internal environment.
  6. Look for practice areas in which the client is at great risks.
  7. Turn away clients.

I suggest that you study up on the strategic planning process and engage all of your partners in the process and comes to terms with an appropriate strategy for your firm. Then develop a strategic plan and use as your roadmap for getting there.

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John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC

Oct 04, 2017


Personal Injury Law Firm Strategy & Strategic Planning

Question: 

I am a partner in a four attorney personal injury plaintiff in downstate Illinois. Three of us are partners and we have one associate attorney. We handle run of the mill slip and fall, vehicle and premises accidents, and products liability cases as well as workers’ compensation cases. We have a very aggressive advertising and marketing program. We are having issues with reduced case flow and dwindling and diminishing profits and earnings. For the past year the partners have been living off our credit line. We believe that we need to be thinking about doing something different and are not sure as to what that should be. However, we have agreed to start doing some long term planning. We would appreciate your thoughts.

Response: 

I believe that the very process of developing a strategic plan would be very helpful, beneficial, and enlightening. Strategic planning does not need to be the involved and complicated process that sometimes it becomes. It a nutshell it is nothing more than a series of logical steps. The process is often more important than the written plan. Most workable strategic plans are put in writing at the end of the process, and then often in summary or outline form. Generally, the steps include:

  1. Develop the mission statement
  2. Develop the vision statement
  3. Develop the long range goals statement
  4. Develop specific objectives
  5. Gather information – internal and external – identify the firm’s strengths and weaknesses
  6. Identify key issues
  7. Formulate strategies
  8. Develop detailed action plans
  9. Write-up the plan
  10. Implement the plan and monitor

Your first step will be the mission statement – you should take a hard look at who are you as a firm and who are you serving as clients? Many of our personal injury law firm clients across the country are facing similar problems that you are and they have been forced to take a hard look at their their practice and geographic area segments. Some firm’s have tried to balance the cash flow ups and downs of contingency fee work by adding time billing practice areas that provide consistent cash flow such as employment, family law, criminal, and bankruptcy. Other firms are extending their geographical reach through additional offices and some are getting involved in mass-tort cases.

I think this is the most important step if you don’t do anything else. You may have to consider expanding and diversifying your practice.

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John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC

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